How Many Projects Should You Have?

My particular method of deciding what to do every day is to assign every half hour to some task. I have a spreadsheet with all of the half hours of the day in the leftmost column (6:30, 7:00, 7:30, etc.). Every morning I go to my calendar and fill in the scheduled things (appointments, meetings, classes, commutes) and then I have a bunch of half hours left over. I go to my todo lists and fill in the remaining ones. Throughout the day I change tasks every half hour. I find it incredibly productive, and just about everyone whom I’ve convinced to try it has found that as well.

However, like many professors I’m prone to taking on too many projects (when professors complain about being overworked, it's usually their own doing). It’s easy, when you look at a new idea, to believe that you’ll be able to find the time to do it. People in general suffer from the planning fallacy, which makes one underestimate task completion times. My todo lists have many things.

The real problem is that if you don’t work on something at least once per week, you lose steam and momentum with it. This is a metaphorical way of saying that the knowledge and memories you need to be productive on the project are not as active in your mind and easy to retrieve as they need to be. So when you go back to the project you end up having to “get into it,” which takes some time-- sometimes more than the half hour you’ve allocated to it this week!

And that’s if you’re only working on a project for one half hour per week, which isn’t good. I prefer to work on all of my projects every day.

So for me there’s a real limit to the number of projects that I can take on. How would this be calculated?

First, you should make a list of the things you absolutely need to do every day. 

Here’s an example list (I encourage you to make your own):

  • bathing
  • eating breakfast
  • eating lunch
  • eating dinner
  • walking dog in the morning
  • walking dog in the evening
  • doing dishes and straightening up the house
  • commuting to work
  • commuting from work

Further, you might have some things you want to do every day but are not completely necessary, such as:

Let's say you want to do these things every day. That's 14 half hours, and I didn't even include cooking times for meals. How many half hours are there in a day? I have about 32, from 6:30am until I go to bed at 10:30pm. That might not sound so bad-- it still leaves 18 whole hours, right?

Well, you probably don't want to work all day. You probably want to have fun, too. Should you schedule your fun half hours? Studies show that you'd be happier if you did. I know it sounds crazy, but scheduling your computer game playing, reading fun books, hanging out with friends, and having sex actually makes you happier.

Not only that, but I've neglected to include things that are scheduled. I'm very fortunate to be on sabbatical right now, which means I have enormous flexibility to work on whatever I want. But even when I'm not on sabbatical, I have lots of freedom as a professor. You might have a job where you don't have a choice about what to do when (e.g., a server), and your half-hours planning might be limited to the evenings and early mornings.

What you'll find if you use this method is that you have less time than you thought you did.

Back to my original question... How many projects can I afford to have? The answer is about 8. However, that's if I want to work on each project for only a half hour per day, which is good enough for steady progress (see, but won't get things done quickly enough for me. So for my highest priority projects (I currently have two) I want to spend an hour per day, which brings my number of projects down to 6.

Now I've got to go to my project list and start trimming.

It's going to hurt.

Pictured: A Stegosaurus sculpture. From wikimedia commons.

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